Piper Moves One Foot Slightly Forward

John Piper, one of the faces of “complementarian” thinking in America, is stepping down from the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church. Piper’s endorsement of wifely submission has made his somewhat infamous on the blogosphere, particularly when he seemed to endorse submission even in the case of abuse.

Since then, perhaps as a last gesture before leaving his church, Piper has attempted to clarify his position a bit. Like so many Reformed thinkers, Piper seems to be hung up on authority. He can’t quite bring himself to back down from the “leadership” of the husband, so he brings in the authority of the state:

God himself has put law enforcement officers in place for the protection of the innocent. “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries. This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership.

Michael Bird calls this a step forward, which, sadly, it is. Wartburg Watch gives a much more biting review, and I think a much more realistic one. They pick up on the weak, vacillating way that Piper accepts police intervention:

A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries.

By this statement he “may” be implying that is not a necessity for a woman who has received “injuries” to go to the police. In other words, Piper is giving the church advisors an out. That is very, very dangerous. For example, are the “gospel” advisors of an abused woman willing to take the risk that they might overlook a leaking spleen (due to trauma) being undiagnosed and having her end up in a trauma unit, almost dead, from internal bleeding? People who are abused MUST be examined by a medical professional.

People give up authority with reluctance and institutions prefer to avoid outside scrutiny. These factors are always going to stand in the way of a proper response to abuse of any kind. You’d think that a theology that focuses so heavily on human sinfulness would be able to pick up on that.

  • Don Gwinn

    Does not the scripture also tell us, in Texans 17:4-8:
    “For the eyes of Jehovah are upon you
    Any wrong you do he’s gonna see,
    If you’re a sinner look behind you
    ‘Cause that’s where Jehovah’s gonna be”

    Never heard of Piper, but that’s crazy talk, of course. And after you sort through all the practical problems with his approach, the basic philosophy remains repugnant: if you’re a woman, you’re still not allowed to disobey your husband, and you’re a bad wife for disagreeing with him (and by the way, no cheating by not having a husband–that’s wrong too!) If he abuses you in such a way that *someone else* has an interest in stopping it, then you might get away with at least reporting that, but none of this is to imply that it’s OK to assert your rights as a human being. You don’t get to press charges and divorce him because you’re a human being who owns her own body and mind; that would be preposterous somehow.

    • Jess

      I agree with you! I was writing my comment at the time you were writing yours–but we are saying the same thing….its only ok for a woman to disobey her husband if an outside interest happens to say that she can. That is exactly what he is saying, which makes it no step forward at all, in my opinion. It muddles up his other assertions about God and authority, by showing how there is no universal moral law at all, as they claim. There is only God’s law, which, as seen in the Bible, is clearly not moral or universal.

      And, to be clear, I am of the opinion that he is interpreting the Bible correctly. I don’t disagree with this man; I disagree with his standard.

  • Jess

    Don’t you think another criticism would be that his explanation relies on a civil law which protects women and victims of abuse? Should that law–one which says spousal battery is not allowed and provides for law enforcement officers to intervene–be struck down or never established in the first place, a woman would have no recourse at all.

    Certainly, I don’t think that will happen in this country, but it is a reality in others. Even so, that makes this a relative relief and not a step forward at all–he does not say that a man’s demand for his wife to suffer injuries is wrong; he merely says if a man’s demand for his wife to suffer his injuries is something not protected or actually deemed criminal according to the law of the land, a wife may not be dishonoring her chain of command to seek relief from law enforcement. A woman, a Christian, in any place which does not have a law to protect her, ought to submit.

    It would only be a step forward if he invoked a universal standard for absolving a woman of her responsibility to submit in any case in which her husband deliberately harms her. Anywhere, anytime. Not dependent, then, on a civil law, which is man-made, can change, and is not universal across the earth. For some reason these people interpret their religion and it’s principles through a lens of American privilege–liberty for most, relative riches and opportunity for many, and the attainable dream of relative prosperity and safety from harm. They don’t see the error in that–a system of religious belief should be true and applicable in all situations, over all times. Just as a deity should be consistent and immutable (as they claim) throughout history, without evidence of whim or caprice.

  • Lester Ballard

    “Should that law–one which says spousal battery is not allowed and provides for law enforcement officers to intervene–be struck down or never established in the first place, a woman would have no recourse at all.

    Certainly, I don’t think that will happen in this country”

    Uh, didn’t Congress just let VAWA expire?

    • Jess

      Well…while the expiration of that act defunds programs which would help combat domestic violence, it doesn’t decriminalize battery. At least I sure hope not–that would mean: A–that before 1994 and the advent of this act, it was legal to beat your wife and no police officers could make you stop (which is not true, sorry.) and that B: I better be super nice to my husband from now on.

      • Paul

        Several years ago I read an article on laws that were still on the books at that time though were no longer enforced. One that was mentioned was that California carried on their books a law stating that a man could beat his wife with a leather belt 2″ in width. I have no idea when that one went on the books or if it is still there but it does illustrate that we have been there before, where a husband could legally beat his wife as long as he followed the rules.

  • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

    I agree with Don Gwinn and Jess, this isn’t really a step forward at all. It’s whitewashing, making the position a little more palatable for mainstream consumption, and yet again providing moderate moral cowards with the cover to pretend that they are not party to a faith that really does think women should stay up, shut up and let their husbands rape and batter them with impunity. Their holy book says what it says, and Piper cites the exact same holy book in paying lipservice to the idea that a woman may have the option of contacting the police. She gets no bodily integrity of her own, she gets offered a loophole for the sake of the church not looking like a monster, a loophole that is only a maybe, and that any pastor could easily recommend against for no real reason, leaving her as ever at the whim of authority.

    This is not so much a step forward as a sidestep designed to dodge charges of extremism and misogyny and get away with maintaining extreme misogyny in the church.

  • http://gulliblestravelsdma.wordpress.com D’Ma

    Doesn’t he even find it a little bit ironic that what he’s saying is that the civil law is more protective of abuse victims than his God’s law? That’s what he just said. A woman may not disobey, protect herself, or divorce her husband, but in the event that the civil law happens to become involved then events may take their course. And all the while the woman must have a heavy heart desiring some sort of restoration. Doesn’t he get it? When those of us who have experienced this do get away we don’t want to go back. Ever.

  • Paul

    By leaving it to civil authorities – typically male – Piper is reinforcing the unworthiness of a woman to make any choices about her life. Even in defending herself he puts the woman at the mercy of men. Yes, I know there are many women police officers but these same kind of religious zealots probably don’t think that women should be in a position of authority as a police officer, a prosecutor or a judge.

  • Jaime Ospina

    “This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership.”

    Wow. How many centuries ago did Mr. Piper pass away? My late great-grandmother would have felt extreme revulsion reading his sexist words.

  • vasaroti

    “restoration of his nurturing leadership.” It sounds like she can call the cops as long as she takes him back.

  • Nox

    If John Piper is stepping down from the pulpit that is a step forward.

    I still feel bad for his wife, but a lot of people outside his family have been victims of Piper’s authority. If he no longer has the authority of the pulpit, they will find his advice less mandatory.

    Authority is his whole schtick. The authority of the pastor represents the authority of god. The authority of the husband or father represents the authority of god. And the authority of god is supreme (so in practice a lot of John Piper’s advice to godly people has been that they should submit to whatever John Piper says).

    This authoritarian worldview can be seen in his words here (wives need to submit to their husbands unless there’s someone else they can submit to), in his defense of the genocide of the old testament (god’s authority is supreme so anything he says is right), in his description of the recent shooting in Connecticut (we didn’t submit to god’s authority enough so he allowed this to happen to punish our lack of submission), and in his description of how he has treated his own family (pressuring his children to submit to him so he can submit to god on their behalf).

    Unsurprising that he is hung up on authority in this case. Everything I’ve ever seen from him (about 30 things at this point) suggests authority is the only thing he understands. And with less authority, he will do less harm.


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